2. An Old Story

She was such a lovely child.

She sang off-key and laughed when others winced. She was always running, even to the bath, even to bed. She pulled his beard and ran away, burped or farted and ran away. She would come running to show him her scrapes and scabs, as if they were trophies, or pets that she had raised and trained and named "Bobbin," "Chim-Cham," and "Rezebel." Her eyes were hungry brown whirlpools, swallowing everything. She was capable of complete absorption, and her fascination with the objects of the world was contagious. They used to walk through the streets together in autumn, kicking the drifts of sweetly rotting leaves in the gutter, like explorers penetrating virgin jungle. She pointed at insects, at cloud formations, at dog shit, at tall people. (Sheila slapped her hand and told her that it was rude to point, and Drew was silent.) Her mind was a cave filled with riches, unique and bizarre treasures. She coined new words like a philosopher, as if the old ones just wouldn't do: she called the world an "earthball," the crusts on her sandwiches "dead bread." She could be fastidious, even picky, but to Drew this only seemed another expression of her intense engagement with the furniture of the universe. She knew what she liked and what she did not; or rather, she knew what she loved and hated everything else. She loved cats and hated dogs—perhaps because cats played hard-to-get. She loved blue and hated pink. She loved jam and hated peanut butter. She hated dead bread, and ate only the middle pieces of pizza, only the patties out of hamburgers, and would not eat sandwiches at all—which made packing her lunch an engineering problem. Drew's procedure was to place each decrusted, jam-soaked, diagonally-cut slice of bread into its own container. Sheila, he knew, simply slapped two slices together and told Miranda to pull them apart. Drew took pride in his superior method, until one day, school unexpectedly canceled for the afternoon and Miranda home early, he watched her lick jam off the lid and leave the bread uneaten.

These were the sort of details that he would have had ready if someday a reporter came to his door and asked him what kind of girl she had been. They were, he thought, better than the sort of things most parents came up with. Did he love her more than most parents, or was she lovelier than most children?

Maybe he'd just had more time to think about it, more time to remember—more time to grieve.

Or maybe his recollections were pure, unadulterated by the painful descent into adolescence, the ugly estrangement brought on by individuation, the sullen withdrawal from those who loved you but from whom you could no longer borrow your identity. He had been spared that "old story." He had never known her as a teenager.

She was only eleven when he lost her.

She was such a happy girl.

Was she such a happy girl? Yes, he believed she was. As happy as could be expected under the circumstances.

She did not like strife. She loved her parents until they argued, then she hated them—hated them for hating each other. When she sensed the gloom of an argument hanging in the air, she would become violent and disruptive—perhaps instinctively trying to draw their pent-up aggression onto herself. She would curse (Drew didn't care, but felt obliged to reprimand her when Sheila was around, so that she couldn't accuse him of always being the nice guy), or she would utter precocious obscenities with crafty nonchalance: "I like sex," she would announce at the dinner table, or ask whether or not God had a penis. At such bizarre non sequiturs Drew often laughed, which must have been just what she wanted: he could feel his tension draining away—until Sheila scolded Miranda for speaking such filth and chastised Drew for encouraging her. Sometimes Sheila even accused him of toadying to her, as if their daughter were a neutral party whose allegiance could be fought for. This accusation rankled him, perhaps because he felt a twinge of guilt at the truth of it. He had always wanted Miranda to prefer him, and, as the marriage deteriorated, to sympathize with him. Yet he knew that it was unforgivable to use a child in this way.

So, when the time came to decide who Miranda would live with, he, foreseeing a vicious squabble that would surely traumatize her, simply bowed out.

"I think," he had said, "we should let Miranda decide."

This was, he felt at the time, a masterstroke. He was treating her like an adult, something her mother never did. He was showing that he valued her mind and trusted her to make a difficult decision. He was, in effect, like the mother in the parable who proved her love, and thereby her rightful custody of the child, by preferring to let the child be taken from her, rather than let it be cut in half.

Sheila had seized on this suggestion. "Tell me, sweetheart. Tell momma who you want to live with. You want momma to take care of you, right?"

Drew, confident that Miranda would find this plea as pathetic as he did, said nothing, did not even attempt to sway the girl's vote by so much as meeting her eye. He sat, dignified, resolute, and patient, with his sweating hands folded in his lap.

A minute went by. Sheila continued to beg and cajole, but Miranda said nothing. Then, just as he began to doubt the wisdom of his strategy, she spoke up. "I don't goddamn care," she said.

Which, because Sheila had been the one entreating her, was taken as a capitulation.

She didn't care. Translation: she didn't care if she went to live with momma.

When at last he saw her again—nine years later; three days ago—he confessed that he was glad, even a little relieved, that she had turned out so well.

"What do you mean by that?"

"You know. So ... well put-together. Well-rounded."

"Like a loaf of bread."

"Like a loaf of bread!" He smiled, having discovered that her sly and subtle sense of humor did not permit outright laughter. "No," he said, "not like a loaf of bread. Like a ... You know. Like a full-grown woman."

"You didn't think I'd grow up?"

"I didn't know what would happen. I didn't know what was happening." Skirting any tone of reproach, he went on quickly: "I didn't know if you'd survive."

"You thought maybe she'd kill me?"

For a moment he thought that she had said not "she'd" but "Sheila'd." It pleased him to think that she might call her mother by her first name, too.

"She did try to poison me," said Miranda thoughtfully.

Drew held back even the smile this time, thinking: That's how well we understand each other; we don't need to advertise when we are joking, we don't need to signal to the other that we know they are joking.

"I guess I'm just glad you escaped undamaged."

But even as he said this he realized that it hid a dark and ugly truth. Sometimes, especially in the first bitter months of separation, he had wished for the opposite: that Miranda would not escape undamaged. He had been hurt by her choice, and occasionally this hurt swelled till he positively wished her ill. At such times it gave him a sickly comfort to think that life with her mother would be its own punishment.